Impact of the "Top 30 Universities" Scheme

Fellow, RIETI

This June, Japan's Ministry of Education announced the so-called Toyama Plan (after the name of its minister), which has among its components an aim to raise the standards of Japan's top 30 "research" universities (i.e., universities with postgraduate programs) to the world's highest level. It intends to do this through the infusion funding into five prioritized research areas. For this purpose the ministry has requested yen 42.2 billion (ca. $352 million) in its JFY2002 budget. In each of these respective priority research areas, funds will be provided to subsidize 30 graduate-level departments. The implementation process will follow four steps: (1) proposals by universities, (2) evaluations by panels of specialists, (3) selection of the top 30 departments in each area, and (4) provision of funding. Judging from the way this scheme it set up, one feels compelled to question whether it is actually capable of providing an incentive mechanism for universities to take the initiative in making the self-improvements needed to raise themselves to the world's highest level. In this column, I address some of the problems inherent in the Top 30 scheme, while attempting to stir the debate on university reform in Japan.

The concept of this ranking scheme appears to differ somewhat from other ranking systems such as the one used to rank universities throughout the US (in which ranking is established based on a weighted average of input and output indices on university education and research compiled from survey data) or the long-used Japanese system of ranking based on the average hensachi (deviation value of standardized test scores) of the applicants apply for university admission. Under this scheme, proposals prepared by the universities are to be subjected to a "peer" review by Japanese and foreign specialists who will choose the top 30 departments in each priority area. It should be noted, however, that those departments to appear in the published list of the Top 30 will not be ordered, nor will the list necessarily correspond to what would be the top 30 departments if based on an evaluation of the state of tertiary education and research activities (as no official data exists on them including national, municipal and private universities). However, from the ring of the term "Top 30," one gets a strong impression that the list can be a useful source of information for recipients of future education or research services in choosing a "service provider." This point should be made clear. It furthermore remains in doubt whether through this process one would be able to pick a department that has the potential to enhance the quality of education or research activities.

As for funding, the scheme, which allocates an average of about yen 300 million (ca. $2.9 million) to each department, appears to give the recipient considerably greater latitude in the use of funds than do conventional schemes. It is hoped that funding under this program will break away from the practice of placing priority on the funding of facilities, and be used to invest in human capital, such as in employing doctoral course students as teaching assistants or in carrying out education through research activities. The introduction of this greater degree of freedom is sure to impact on the beneficiary's ability to exercise discretion in using the funds. This, however, will involve a moral hazard, which should be addressed through the establishment of what may be called a "social contract" between the government and the university. That is, an objective should be set for each project proposed by the department along with a method for evaluating its achievement; when the objective is met, the process taken in doing so should be elucidated; and funding should be provided based on the conclusion of the said contract.

When setting the project objectives, attention should be given to the extent to which they incorporate effort on the part of the department to improve its quality of education and research activities. Whether the Top 30 scheme will actually work as an incentive mechanism for universities to improve their activities depends on how the rules of the game-i.e., the "social contract"-are designed.

The ultimate goal of the program is to elevate Japanese research universities to the apex of international excellence. The question, however, remains whether the implementation of the Ministry's scheme can effectively attain this target. Even Stanford University took several decades of self-improvement to make its transition after World War II from a regional university to one that is consistently ranked among the nation's top ten. Two lessons can be garnered from its example. The first is that it will take a long-term process for the goals of the government's Top 30 Universities scheme to be achieved. As contradictions are likely to occur between the present policy based on annual budgets and a required long-term strategy, a separate funding framework should be considered for the program. The second is that it must be the university itself that strives to become one of the world's finest; the government should limit its involvement to a support role. Under this policy dictated by the Ministry, universities are relegated to a passive posture. Ideally, they should participate as principal actors in the policymaking process, which ought to be a bottom-up one. The ability of universities to assume such a role will, however, depend on their establishing effective internal decision-making mechanisms.

To this point I have touched upon the scheme proposed by Japan's Ministry of Education; now I'd like to conclude the piece with a contrasting look at what the Swiss government did in 2000 to overhaul its policy of prioritized research investment. In 1992, eight priority R&D programs were launched under a long-term 8-10 year plan. Aimed at invigorating collaborative research between universities and industries, these programs were each endowed with a budget equivalent to yen 4-8 billion. When Switzerland's Science and Technology Council reviewed the program in 1998, they found that it was effective in triggering university-industry cooperation and interdisciplinary research, but that it didn't go far enough to spawn centers of excellence. In 2000, therefore, Switzerland inaugurated the "National Pole of Research (NPR)," which succeeded the priority programs, while starting 14 new projects in five fields (i.e., life sciences, humanities, environment and sustainable development, information technologies, and others). What differentiates these projects from the priority programs focused on specific fields is that, whereas the government designates the strategic fields, it aims to set up research networks (e.g., groups of researchers from the academic, corporate and/or government sectors) around a core institution (mainly universities) which will play a driving role. Though there are still issues of project management and evaluation that remain to be tackled in the future, the fact that Switzerland, which has less than 20 universities, have received 84 project proposals testifies that the NPR schemes provides an incentive mechanisms for creating networks among researchers in the three sectors.

In parallel with providing prioritized investment under the Top 30 scheme, it would be highly desirable for Japan to promote the establishment of networks of competence that overcome current barriers to university-industry collaboration.

October 25, 2001

October 13, 2001